Equipment Review: Epson R-D1s
This time I'll be looking at a somewhat more uncommon and unique piece of equipment, the Epson R-D1/R-D1s. This mostly forgotten about camera was actually somewhat ground breaking in 2004 as it was the first digital rangefinder, releasing about 2 and a half years prior to the Leica M8. The R-D1s was the second model, the first being the R-D1. However, the cameras are identical. The difference being the R-D1s shipped with the new firmware released in 2006, and the R-D1 owners had to download and update the firmware themselves.
A third version was released in 2009 in Japan. It retained the same sensor, but added a slightly larger fixed screen (i.e. removing ability to rotate the screen) and the ability to use cards greater than 2GB. Other than those 2 changes, it was practically the same camera. It was a shame that they never updated the sensor in the later versions.
The camera was a joint venture between Cosina Voigtlander, and Seiko Epson. One can clearly see the resemblance to the Voigtlander Bessa R series, which was clearly the basis on which the camera was designed around. The camera retains several things commonly found on film cameras. Looking at the top, the most obvious thing is the mechanical shutter advance. It is very peculiar to see a digital camera with a mechanical shutter advance, but it has one, making the handling quite interesting. I personally love having it there as it acts as a thumb rest. Others seem to dislike it, and prefer having an automatic shutter advance. Next to the shutter advance, you will see a beautiful shutter speed dial sporting a max shutter speed of 1/2000th. The very interesting thing is that it retains the traditional method of setting the ISO. You simply pull up on the shutter speed dial and rotate to the desired ISO speed. It reminds me of my old Minolta XD-11.
Next to the shutter speed dial is the most unique part of the camera. Rather than a traditional LCD for settings, there is what looks like a clock face. Seiko, being a watch company, decided to use a gauge system for displaying settings. The largest needle displays the remaining images, the left displays white balance, the small middle one displays battery life, and the needle on the right displays image record setting (Raw vs JPG). In my opinion, it is a very sleek and easy way to display the information and keep the vintage look of the camera. In addition, the rewind knob on the top let of the camera has been turned into the main dial.
Speaking of the vintage look, the screen rotates, and can be rotated to face the camera. On the back one can see a conversion chart of full frame equivalence due to crop factor. It is very reminiscent of ISO to DIN conversion charts found on the back of film cameras like the Minolta XD-11. Most people end up mistaking the camera for a film camera until I open and reveal the screen. It adds to the experience of shooting with this camera.
Another thing that makes this camera very nice is the 1.0x viewfinder. It's big, bright, and the focusing patch is very bright as well. Take that Leica M8 and M9 with your .68x magnification.
Moving onto the internals, the camera features a 6 mega-pixel APS-C CCD sensor made by Sony (the same sensor found in the Nikon D70, D50, and D100). The camera has a limited ISO range of 200-1600, but I've found that you can push and pull the RAW files comfortably a stop in each direction, resulting in a working range of 100-3200. One of the benefits of the lower mega-pixel count is file size. Being so old, the camera only supports SD cards 2GB or smaller. With a 2GB card, you get approximately 200 RAW images until the card is full. Oh, and buffer size, 2.5 RAW images and it's full. So the buffer size combined with the mechanical shutter forces you to slow down. It feels like shooting film.
One of the great things about rangefinders is the "stealth" factor. Since there is no mirror like in a SLR, the shutter sound is significantly quieter, and the camera can be made much lighter and smaller than a traditional SLR. It makes it perfect for shooting intimate events such as jazz, vocal performances, and small chamber groups where a SLR would be distracting to the performers and the audience.
Because of it's small size, it makes a perfect street camera. People tend to not be intimidated by it, or notice it, resulting in very natural candid shots. Rangefinder lenses are also usually small, so I can have an additional 2 lenses in my pockets such as a 15mm and 50mm and not feel weighed down.
In addition, there is a wide range of lenses available for the m-mount system, including vintage Leica, Zeiss, and Canon lenses from the Leica screw mount era, older m-mount lenses, and new m-mount lenses by Leica, and Voigtlander. One of my favorite lenses to use is an old Russian copy of an even older Zeiss pre-war design. It's the Jupter-12 35mm f/2.8. Not many cameras can use this lens due to it's design, but it works perfectly on rangefinders! I'll probably do a short review on the Jupiter-12 since it's such an uncommon lens.
In addition to early Zeiss designs, early ultra-fast primes from Canon and Leica result in some very distinctive images as well. A lot of these early ultra-fast primes from the 1950's have very busy and almost swirly bokeh, and a lower micro contrast resulting in the image above.
At this point you might be thinking, it's basically basically a Voigtlander Bessa that they shoved a Sony CCD into, and you are pretty much right. This is probably one of the most stupid and clunky cameras I've ever used, and yet I love it for it's quirkiness. In my opinion, the biggest downside is not the sensor technology, it's not the handling, it's the price and availability. If you are able to find one, they still fetch a surprisingly high price for a 2006 camera. New in 2006, they were priced at roughly at 2,000 USD, around the same as a Canon 5D Mark 1. Used, they are currently around 800-1,000 USD depending on condition.
In closing, this camera has a lot of pros and cons, yielding some very mixed reviews, and a sort-of cult following for those who love it. While it was the first digital rangefinder, Leica has now put out several different options over the years, and the dated electronics in the Epson R-D1s are quite apparent when compared to a new Leica digital M. The handling of the Epson is awful for a digital camera, it lacks all modern features. However, because of all those things, I love this camera. I love that it is missing all modern features. I love the mechanical shutter advance, the mechanical shutter speed dial and ISO dial. It is my go to camera when I want something that feels like film, but but the flexibly of digital.
To view other photos from this camera and view photos in high resolution, head over to my Flickr page where I have the photos posted in full resolution, and check out the results for your self!
7/6/2016 12:30:28 am
Thanks! I'm glad you liked the review. It's one of my favorite cameras even though the 5DIII has so many more bells and whistles. The analogue handling is why I will never part with it.
Nice to see someone still using this camera. I used to have one, and I'm seriously considering picking one up when I head over to the UK this summer (the R-D1 is easy to get here in Japan but the used prices are ridiculous). It really is the closest thing to shooting film without actually shooting film.
8/14/2016 01:57:56 am
Hi Scott, thanks for the reply!
8/27/2016 01:38:42 am
4/20/2018 09:56:38 am
You might like to see my appreciation of the R-D1 posted on Luminous Landscape several years ago, titled "Me And T.S. Eliot."
4/20/2018 03:48:08 pm
Thanks for sharing, what a fun read!
5/16/2018 04:24:20 pm
I've been shooting with the RD1 since 2004 from new and have prints made to 60" x 40" as the technology gotten better a few years ago compared to max print size of A2 back then. I love this camera so much that I have just purchase the RD1x from ebay (still waiting for it to arrive) because my screen no longer works, although I can still shoot but I cannot format my 2GB card any more so this new camera no only to use to format the card but 1x can use much larger size cards. Since there's still a lot of RD1 user out there, batteries is still being made today and I will probably use this camera til it dies completely.
5/17/2018 05:30:38 pm
Wow. Those are some big prints from a relatively low resolution sensor. That's fantastic. I was considering the RD1x for the compatibility with larger cards, but I like the rotating screen better as I usually don't use it. It's nice to have it tucked away and not distracting from the shooting experience. I still need to pick up some new batteries. I'm running the original. It's good for about 200 or so shots (same as a 2gb card) but not too much more.
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